June 7, 2016

A Laughing Matter: What Being Willing to “Bomb” Onstage Taught me About Life.

mitch hedberg

My parents let me watch a lot of stuff as a child I probably wasn’t supposed to—the greatest of these was a show I fondly coined The Brick Wall Show.

The show was actually called An Evening at the Improv, which ran on A&E from 1982-1996. Its premise was dead simple: Comics doing short bits of material in front of an expanse of unadorned masonry—hence, The Brick Wall Show.

I was obsessed with it.

Laughing is pleasurable, of course. It feels great to have a hearty guffaw, and children laugh more than any other subgroup of human, according to science (probably). So it makes sense I would gravitate toward it. My love of the show fit perfectly with my attempts to understand what the hell the grown-ups were laughing about at any given time (spoiler alert: a sophisticated melange of wine, work politics, and d*ck jokes). Those attempts were largely unsuccessful, but I knew that older people thought it was hysterical, and that was reason enough to study it more thoroughly.

As a young girl with a deadly combo of chubby gawkiness, I knew implicitly that “being funny” needed a permanent place in my wheelhouse.

The earliest complete memory I have of a comedy routine is a musical one. Considering that I still have to sing my ABCs to file anything correctly, perhaps that’s not shocking. Melody has a funny way of working its way into the folds of your brain for all eternity.

In the dead of night
A shimmewing wight
Gweem of a bwade
And the devil was paid
When the axe comes down
A chiwwing sound
Steel hits the head
Another wabbit’s dead
I’m a wabbit swayer
A guitar pwayer
With a nasty habbit
Kill the wabbit!

By most accounts, Doug McCollum (the auteur behind the Elmer Fudd-aping song above) was a gimmicky act perhaps undeserving of his 1987 Star Search win. But hacky or no, I still remember every word. We had it on some staticky VHS we had taped off of TV, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

When Bell Canada first launched The Comedy Network in 1997, I was beside myself with joy. Pre-YouTube, the idea of having a whole entire channel devoted 24/7 to chuckle production was simply beyond my comprehension. The so-called Brick Wall Show was still relatively fresh in my memory, and I was starting to actually get the majority of the jokes. Even Stephen Wright, in his deadpan absurdity, started to seem like a genius instead of someone on too high a dose of lithium. I would memorize entire routines and re-tell jokes for my…well, I didn’t exactly have friends, but while my peers were laughing at my* jokes, they weren’t laughing at me.

By the time junior high had rolled around, the popularity of the British Whose Line is it Anyway? was starting to take off in Canada, when the Comedy Network acquired the show. The improv was so good that it defied any cultural specifics in the material, and all of the dorky theatre kids (ahem) were eating it up. I lived for the days we’d play improv games in drama class, having memorized many of the structures in Whose Line, and learned what sorts of patterns and punchlines seemed to land the biggest laughs. Most importantly, I wasn’t afraid of looking like a total loser, because I was already firmly relegated to the dork tier of the social ladder.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that the internet started to show signs of becoming the blissful playground of semi-legal media formats it is today. I discovered a number of acts that I felt spoke directly to me (with some shame I’ll admit that one of them was, for a time, Dane Cook. I was 20, I feel like that’s an excuse), in particular, the stone-y absurdity of Mitch Hedberg. Mitch’s comedy was a unique form of social currency; his infinitely repeatable jokes serving as a way to identify common ground with other weirdos. My love of this type of comedy quickly surpassed my passion for singers and bands; good bits were like songs I could hear over and over without ever tiring of them.

And then Mitch died.

It wasn’t really shocking to the people who actually knew him (at least as I’ve heard it), or even those of us who didn’t.

But at 20, these kinds of things are shocking. Finding out that Mitch had a serious drug problem coupled with a heart condition didn’t fit with the image I had of him. When you associate someone with such joy, it’s hard to imagine them grappling with the darkness inside of themselves.

Culturally, we don’t like to make suffering visible.

Comedy can do that, however, in ways that are explicit and subversive—and that’s part of what draws me to it.

There is a question raised in the philosophy of comedy that unsettles me deeply: Is the desire to make people laugh the result of the comedian’s personal suffering, or is it the cause?

I believe at my core that being thought-and-laugh-provoking is a worthy pursuit. But how to divorce the subjective, unpredictable reactions of the audience from one’s self-worth as a person? In pursuing the favour of others, and their approval of me as a performer, will I cease to try to do the hard and ugly work of learning to love myself, independent of that external validation?

These are real concerns. I am prone to all of the things that shorten the lives of many comics, and I fear turning into the cliche of the sad clown.

I heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Life seems harsh, and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says: “Treatment is simple. The great clown—Pagliacci—is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. “But doctor…” he says “I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. (actual wizard Alan Moore, The Watchmen)

I am terribly afraid to eat sh*t on stage, and stand there, red-faced, as a roomful of strangers waits for me to go away.

I’m scared, until the moment someone laughs. Then it all melts away.

Last year, I bucked up and finally did something I’d been meaning to do for years: I enrolled in a stand up comedy course at Instant Theatre with Adam Pateman. It was, without a doubt, the best $100 I have ever spent in my life. Every minute of every class felt charged with energy and excitement bolstered by expert support. And at our final showcase, I had the pleasure and privilege of performing in front of 50 people—at least 20 of whom were my lovely friends and family.

Admittedly, I stacked the deck. But they laughed. I have never before felt the way I did coming off of that six-inch-high stage.

I floated for weeks afterward.

I’ve performed a few times since, and still find it a struggle to think about getting onstage, especially when bouts of depression and various life stresses make the idea seem so very daunting.

So I have to remind myself regularly:

You’re good enough.

You get better every time you do it.

No one has ever died from embarrassment—even if it felt like they would.

I need to be willing to bomb, to start over, to build and change things, because I cannot disappoint that little, awkward, bespectacled girl who first felt the thrilling flush of “they’re laughing with me, not at me.”

She needs me, and I need her.




Author: Katie Nordgren

Editors: Renée Picard / Nicole Cameron

Image: Google Images labelled for reuse

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